Sharif plans peace talks with Pakistani Taliban
Former Pakistani prime minister’s party forecast to win general election this week
Nawaz Sharif (front left), leader of Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz, speaks with his brother Shahbaz Sharif, former chief minister of Punjab, in Lahore. Photograph: Reuters/Mohsin Raza
Nawaz Sharif, the former Pakistani prime minister whose party is forecast to win the most seats in this week’s general election, plans to open immediate talks with all sides, including the army and Taliban militants, to end the country’s “gigantic” terrorism problem.
“If we win the elections we will call everybody, make them sit there and then of course will try to find an answer,” Mr Sharif said at his family estate outside Lahore. “Guns and bullets are not always the answer.”
Politics in Pakistan has been marked by periodic violence, assassinations and military takeovers since partition from India in 1947. But recent attacks by Islamist extremists on religious minorities and secular politicians have caused so many deaths that the nation’s stability has been called into question by Pakistanis and foreigners alike.
The Pakistani Taliban rejects the constitution and has told people not to vote, calling democracy “un-Islamic” and the work of secular forces. Some parties have curtailed campaigning for fear of further violence.
“We have the problem of extremism, of terrorism in this country,” Mr Sharif said. “And that has taken 40,000 lives . . . We have problems in Karachi, we have problems in Baluchistan and, of course, the tribal areas.”
Mr Sharif (63), who has twice been prime minister and was last ousted in 1999 in a military coup led by Pervez Musharraf, said all relevant parties would be invited to join the talks to end terrorism.
Asked if that included the Pakistani Taliban, which has been fighting the military in the tribal areas for several years, he said:
“A few weeks ago, the Taliban offered dialogue to the government of Pakistan and said, ‘We are prepared to talk’. I think the government of Pakistan should have taken that seriously. [It] did not take it seriously.”
Such talks, Mr Sharif said, would be preceded by a discussion among democratic politicians as to how to engage the militants. “Let us first debate that among ourselves, let there be a brainstorming session as to what strategy we need for that and how we initiate these talks with the Taliban.”
But a conciliatory approach — although apparently similar to the halting attempts being made to engage the Afghan Taliban over the border by the Kabul government and the US — might provoke a hostile reaction from some senior army officers.
“If he really pursues what he’s saying, he may run into difficulties in six months,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst and author of a book on the Pakistani armed forces, noting that more Pakistani troops had now died fighting terrorists than in wars against India.
“At the moment he is seen as being soft on the Taliban and also soft on Punjab-based sectarian militant groups,” said Mr Rizvi.
“He can’t talk to the Taliban while ignoring the military altogether.”
Despite Mr Sharif’s ousting in the 1999 coup, he insisted he bore no grudges against the military. “I don’t hold the military responsible for what happened to me. I don’t hold the military responsible for what happened to the country,” he said. “The takeover was the decision of one man [Mr Musharraf and] a coterie of three other people.”
In Saturday’s election, opinion polls predict Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz will become the biggest party in parliament but will not be able to form a government without partners.
The other big parties are the Pakistan People’s party of Asif Ali Zardari, who recently stepped down after finishing his five-year term, and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) of Imran Khan, the former cricketer who is popular among young city dwellers.
Mr Sharif said his other main priority if he won would be to solve the deep economic malaise. “Pakistan is confronted with huge, huge problems.”
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013)